As political parties in Bihar are gearing up for the upcoming state Assembly polls, frontline health workers have put forward a clear message to the government for denying the recognition of their rights and to make their demands a poll issue. With this demand, Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) staged a two-day protest on September 22 and 23 at nearly 200 Primary Health Centres (PHCs) and Community Health Centres (CHCs) across the state.
The protest, under the banner of ASHA Karyakarta Sangh in districts of Patna, Muzaffarpur, Samastipur, Darbhanga, Gopalganj, East & West Champaran, Madhepura, Supaul, Siwan, Munger, Bhagalpur, Khagaria, Nalanda, Jehanabad, Arwal, Rohtas and Kaimur, demanded regularisation of their wages, wages pertaining to COVID-19 duty, state official status and payment of dues accrued over the last few months.
Sangeeta Kumar, a ASHA worker based in Madhepura, told NewsClick, “Our enthusiasm in discharging duty during the COVID-19 pandemic, even risking our health went in vain as it made no difference in the government’s stance of considering our demands of social security, state workers status, paying our dues and increasing the minimum wages, etc. The honorarium overdue is of four months until April, ever before the pandemic.”
Also read: "ASHA Workers are in Forefront of Fighting COVID-19 but are Denied Facilities"
ASHAs, on one hand, are working as frontline health workers combating the COVID-19 pandemic while Nitish Kumar’s government seems to be balking at the risk taking job to serve the rural population at grassroots level. “In an extraordinary situation like pandemic, no social benefit is a plain betrayal,” said Shashi Yadav, State President ASHA Workers’ Union affiliated to AICCTU.
ASHA on strike in Madhepura district.
The ASHA union leader reiterated that last month, too, ASHAs, hand in hand with Anganwadi and MDM workers staged a three days protest in every district demanding insurance cover with PPE kits to ASHA engaged in COVID-19 work, Rs 10,000 honorarium for six months and state employee status to ASHA facilitators. However, instead of concrete response, the Health Department flaunted recognising hand-picked ASHAs from five districts (namely Nalanda, Nawada, Siwan, Begusarai and Gaya) under the farce of ‘Stars of door to door screening’, which did nothing for improving the lives of frontline health workers.
Detailing the issues faced by ASHAs in the state, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) leader Arun Kumar Mishra told NewsClick, “Delayed payment, pending dues of promised incentives to ASHA, and no compensation despite riskful duty during COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated their miseries which will take form of strong mobilisation in the upcoming state election. Workers are not going to spare government without seeking rights and recognition. Overworked and underpaid ASHA workers remain unrecognised and in the upcoming Assembly election, the state-sponsored discrimination will be our central issue.”
He added, “There are several instances of the deaths of ASHA workers as well. Shail Kumari died in a road accident while on her way to a community health centre. And 60-year-old Manju Devi from East Champaran collapsed and died during door-to-door COVID-19 survey, but this did not even attract the health department’s attention, with her family deprived from compensation.”
ASHA workers staging protest in Kaimur.
It should be mentioned here that in May 2013, the 45th session of the Indian Labour Conference (ILC) had recommended that the central government recognise the scheme workers as workers, that they be paid minimum wages and be provided social security benefits, including pension and recognise their right to organise and collectively bargain.
Also read: Scheme Workers Call for All India Strike on August 7,8; Jail Bharo and Satyagraha on August 9
More recently, the Supreme Court had directed the central government to ensure that the salaries of doctors and frontline healthcare workers, who are combating the COVID-19 pandemic are paid on time. However, the reality is far from that.
Prof D M Diwakar, former director of AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna, explained to NewsClick that since their inception, ASHAs were recruited by the state government formally as volunteers and not workers of the government. “So, rendering their service unrecognised and keeping them at bay when financial empowerment and social inclusivity comes in, remains an old trick played by the Bihar government. Even during the pandemic if lakhs of grass root workers are not provided decent economic package with social security, episodic strikes to make the deaf, insensitive regime hear, is an expected move,” he said.
Scheme workers, of which ASHAs remain an integral part, have been forced time and again to hit the streets demanding parity in rights and pay. Towards the end of 2018, ASHA workers’ union had , which had continued for over a month.